Life for me was in a time of turmoil. Work was really challenging me with relationship issues, and I was facing several conflicts that did not seem resolvable. At home, my wife and I were dealing with 2 teenage boys. Those who have had children might say they understand…enough said.
In this stressful time, my wife and I were seeking counseling and continued our normal connection time of taking walks together. This was one way we could escape and have uninterrupted talk time. It also doubled as exercise, sunshine and fresh air.
As we walked, she asked if she could share some things that she was struggling with. I don’t recall the exact subjects, but I remember my stomach knotting up and my neck and shoulders tensing. I was being triggered and was unable to listen or process her concerns.
I became very defensive and was responding with examples of how she was wrong. …that I was trying hard to be present with her…that I was planning dates for us…that I was doing my best to not bring work stress home.
Now, my responses might lead you to believe that I do remember what she was sharing, but you’d be wrong. My wife stopped in her tracks and said, “Doug! This isn’t about you! I’m trying to share my heart with you, and you are stomping all over it! I’m done talking with you about this.”
What just happened? I was sure I was listening and heard my wife complaining about how I was failing as a husband, father, and provider. But she was saying I stomped on her heart. I was lost. My wife had shut down, and I was scared.
We had a ways to get home, and so we walked in tense silence. All of a sudden, a simple thought came to mind. “I was being defensive!” It hit me like a bolt of lightning.
Defensiveness was my reaction to the message of my wound.
In counseling, I had remembered hurtful stories that left me feeling very much alone. Thinking I had to do life on my own and figure out my problems by myself. In this was a strong message that, since I was always getting in trouble, I was a failure and didn’t have what it took to help others or myself. So I would get defensive.
My heart cried out, “Oh no”. I wasn’t listening. I was reacting to my core fear. I was defending myself against my wife, but now I wondered what she had really been saying. She wasn’t my enemy; she was my teammate.
As we walked I shared my revelation with Barb. I confessed I had only been reacting and not really present with her. I asked her to forgive me for not listening. She was understandably angry. I asked if she could possibly find it in her to give me a second chance at listening. Her heart softened to me, and she said she would – but if I said anything defensive, she was going to stop talking. I agreed. She shared her heart and my heart hurt with hers.
Though this wasn’t a comfortable experience, it taught me several valuable lessons for communication in my marriage:
1. Pay attention to your body. Our bodies typically tell us when we are being triggered, and when we are, we tend to stop listening. Our ‘survivor brains’ tell us we are hearing the whole truth, but we are usually mainly reacting.
2. Learn how to identify when you are reacting and not listening. That way, you can figure out when you are triggered and can aim to stop any destructive defensiveness, criticism, contempt, or stonewalling, etc.
3. Recognize the messages of your wounds. We react to these messages and tend to project them onto our spouses. Check it out. “Are you saying that I am a failure as a husband father and provider?” I will probably get an angry “no”!
4. Be quick to gently say, “I’m sorry” or “Please forgive me.” Ask if you can have a second chance at the conversation. Gottman calls this a bid for repair. Couples who are healthy accept repair attempts 85% of the time.
5. Then, listen with your heart and not merely your head. Know the feelings that are being expressed along or behind the words said. Respond to the feelings more than the words.
-Douglas Harsch LPC, CSAT-C